Losing proposals, and the potential contacts that come with them, to put in plainly - proper sucks. You know full well you've got what it takes to do that job - and do it damn well! But for some reason, the prospective customer went in a different direction, leaving you to put your proposal and the time and effort you spent creating it in the rejection pile, right next to your self-help books, reiki vouchers and scented candles. 

Just like real life rejection, we've all been there - and sometimes it's through no fault of our own! If Jimmy breaks up with us because he feels we're dimming his artistic expression, we would probably just blow it off and have a laugh about it with our mates later on - "I mean pfft! He even doesn't know who Banksy is!". But if date, after date, after date start calling it quits for the same lame reason, you'd start thinking maybe you're the one sabotaging your love life. It's the same with proposals! 

Here at Neighbourhood, we write a lot of proposals - some we win, some we lose! But over the years, we've refined and tweaked our proposal strategy to better understand why we win the ones we do and the reasons we lose others! 

Unless you're proposing in a literal sense and getting down on one knee in front of a customer and declaring that they (please) work with you, I guarantee the reasons we lose proposals are the same reasons you lose yours! So let's check out what those reasons are, and how you can fix them! 



1. Let's get one thing out of the way...

First off, it's important to note that the problem many businesses face, is treating the proposal as the first phase in the sales process, when in fact, it's one of the final steps! A proposal is a document confirming previous discussions, it is not a conversation starter. There is huge value in this document, but to use it effectively, you have to understand its place in the sales cycle, and how it should be used to win a contract. 


2. Emphasise value, not cost  

If you're sending a proposal purely because the prospect wants pricing info, then great - make that the focus of your proposal. But most businesses don't just want to be the low-cost alternative. They want prospects to partner with them! So if your proposal is just a list of items with how much each costs and how long they'll take you, while you think you're sprouting off about your efficiency; you're actually demonstrating a bad attitude! 


Understand where your true value lies and focus on that, emphasise the customers' pain points, the challenges they face, and your business's track record for delivering value and improving customer's overall business as a result! The best customers see marketing as an investment, a mindset you want to appeal to, rather than the odd few who simply want to buy a product at the lowest cost possible!


3. You didn't qualify the prospect 

It's a tale as old as time in the world of proposals - the director of a company meets with a potential customer and they seems keen. After the meeting, things are looking promising and the director has a fair gauge on what the customer is looking for, so assigns an account manager to whip up a proposal. 

Without any knowledge of the prospect, the account manager writes a document that mimics more of a shopping list - a list of services (maybe even all that the business offer) and then splits a grand total offer amount across the services to price out individual services. Once everything's looking hunky dory (or so they think), they send it over to the customer

The problem with this cookie-cutter strategy? The potential customer may have never worked with an agency or business before and might not have the budget to partner any time soon based on the figures you've provided. So almost immediately, they disregard the business as an option, both for now and in six months when their budget potentially increases by 50%. 

While it is sometimes the case that a customer might not be the right fit, or it's just not the right time, don't shoot yourself in the foot by sending a proposal that reveals you know nothing about what the customer is looking for, including their financial constraints. 

Besides understanding the current state of their marketing efforts and their business objectives, when setting up a proposal, ensure you're totally across: 

  • What the customers' goals are. What does success for the overall company look like? 
  • What their timeframe is for achieving those goals
  • Whether there are separate long term and short term goals. What specific metrics will define their success? 
  • How they define success of your engagement
  • What challenges they are currently facing
  • What value they see in the services you provide


4. You didn't build a relationship 

Simply put, as humans we're naturally drawn to people we like - we want to hang around with them, we want to talk to them, and in the world of business - we want to work with them! Despite the fact that it's human nature, we often forget that our emotions drive our purchasing decisions, not logic or numbers. 

So, sending a proposal before you've built any kind of rapport with a potential customer is just a one-way ticket to their 'review later' inbox - i.e. "The I'm Never Going To Read This inbox". It's practically impossible to properly portray your personality in a big, fat, written proposal. 

So instead, start with a friendly call or invite them out for coffee, learn all about their business, and learn about them as people too! Find common ground and show them you care, listen to their challenges and give them reason to trust you. This way, you can send a proposal with a personal note and some reminders of a shared moment! 

I think that John Kelleher, Director of ESM Inbound put it perfectly in saying that "... to sign a contract, your prospect has to take a huge emotional leap of faith. They're choosing to believe in you rather than believe in themselves! You're asking them to choose you to deliver results that they haven't been able to generate for themselves." 

(This works vice versa as well, as an business, you don't want to be working with people who aren't a good fit, you want to work with people you like!) 


5. You don't act like a partner 

Thinking back to my job as a barista, I was frequently confronted with the same phrase "Liv, I know this customer is trying to convince you that coconut milk is actually made from cows in the Bahamas, and that's why they need almond milk, but remember ... the customer is always right." 

While I'd made my mind up pretty quickly about how true that statement really was at the time, years later I've come to realise I was right - sometimes, the customer doesn't know best, even if they think they do. 

Understanding this, if you truly want to be a partner, not an order taker, you need to understand if what the customer says they want, will actually get them the results they need. To partner effectively, there needs to be an environment of open communication and the ability for you to challenge the customer by showing them not why they're wrong, but why another way is actually more effective and how they'd see better results. 


6. You outline your pricing in the wrong way 

Most proposals are set up so that customers are given the 'bare bones option' first, and then, once positively underwhelmed, the business unveils it's crazy-special-super-charged-coming-out-the-wazoo marketing package, unsurprisingly for a higher price. 

Keeping with the psychology of pricing, proposals and bracketing, here's a simple change you can make when laying out your prices. Instead of starting at the lowest-cost option and then guilt-tripping prospects into purchasing the version with extra features, start at the highest-cost option and remove features down the line. 

The result is a shift in the customers' perception. Their thinking goes from “these extra features cost more” to “I don’t get these features with the standard package”. It’s a simple form of loss aversion.


7. You're missing a clear process 

If you're all over what you do, how you sell it and how to package it, you should be able to customise an existing proposal to fit your needs. This means that you need to have a repeatable, defined selling process that asks similar questions to every prospect. You need to know:

  • The goals, plans and challenges of the customer 
  • Current customer metrics and key company information 
  • The cost to the customer of not doing anything to meet its goals 


8. You don't set expectations 

While writing a proposal may sound like a quick job, there are a variety  of steps that go into creating a proposal before you actually start writing - and a big one is setting expectations with the customer. Ensure that before you go the whole hog and send your proposal through, you detail: 

  • How you work
  • What your baseline project budget floor is
  • Why your solution is unique and well-suited to their problem

Use the initial meetings to learn about the customer, have them learn about you, what you do and what they can expect from your proposal. There shouldn't be some big reveal like some elaborate prize on a quiz show, because this has already been taken care of, right? The proposal is a confirmation, and the final step before a contract is signed! 


9. You lack credibility 

Trust takes time, and when you want to get the ball rolling with a customer, time isn't aways on your side. But there are a few little things you can do to prove you're credible! 

First off, good design instills confidence in the viewer - so follow modern design standards to create a clean, easy-to-read proposal that pleases your prospects lil' eyeballs. As well as this, if you're willing to take a plucky stab each time you use 'your and 'you're', more power to you - but a document full of misspellings and bad grammar can be a huge red flag for customers, making you look less-than-credible and not overly professional. 

You should also display previous case studies proudly, showing the results you deliver, the type of working relationships you have and how you solve problems with awesome solutions! 


10. You weren't persistent 

But sending a proposal isn't the final step entirely, oh no! You need the potential customer to sign. Many businesses, forget that they are in the business of selling their services, and so resultingly fail to implement follow-up procedures that pay off. Persistence is key! If you're all across the buyer's journey, you'll know that this is all part of the decision-making process. So now, you just need to give potential customers the info they need to go through with that final step. 

Consider creating an email series that checks in on the customer every few weeks and reiterates how your business can help, or mapping out information you could send to them via phone, email, LinkedIn, etc. Maybe, even send the proposal with an invitation for an in-person meeting the following week to keep the momentum going! 

So there you have it, mad respect for making it to the bottom - you're clearly super keen to get those proposals rolling over, and rightfully so - it's a rather inexact science. So now, you can turn those failed proposals into opportunities to shine and buff your proposals to win far more in the future - you'll win by losing!

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